The inner mounting flame


The rapid climate change underway in the Arctic has the potential to disrupt weather patterns around the planet, and brings with it the risk that methane bubbling out of the permafrost that rings the Arctic Ocean and from gas hydrates under the sea floor could make our attempts to restrain emissions and stabilise atmospheric greenhouse gases completely irrelevant. These concerns will not be news to Hot Topic regulars (try the methane and Arctic tags for earlier posts and background), but a thorough overview by Fred Pearce in last week’s New Scientist (Arctic meltdown is a threat to all humanity) pulls all the threads together and presents them in a compelling fashion. Pearce begins by looking at the experiences of Katey Walter:

“I am shocked, truly shocked,” says Katey Walter, an ecologist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. “I was in Siberia a few weeks ago, and I am now just back in from the field in Alaska. The permafrost is melting fast all over the Arctic, lakes are forming everywhere and methane is bubbling up out of them.”

Back in 2006, in a paper in Nature, Walter warned that as the permafrost in Siberia melted, growing methane emissions could accelerate climate change. But even she was not expecting such a rapid change. “Lakes in Siberia are five times bigger than when I measured them in 2006. It’s unprecedented. This is a global event now, and the inertia for more permafrost melt is increasing.”

Not good news.

Walter was profiled by the LA Times earlier this year, and the paper was fascinated by Walter’s approach to dealing with methane seeps:

In a field where the science often seems opaque, Walter’s research has a flashy side. She enjoys igniting methane seeps with a cigarette lighter, leaping away as the gas flares as high as 20 feet. “It’s fun,” she says. “And it is informative.”

This LA Times video clip is worth a watch:

And don’t miss Walter’s research videos (the second one is spectacular). They’ve been shown to a US Senate hearing by Al Gore, on the BBC and Discovery Channel — and I plan to show one to the Rangiora Rotary Club on Thursday…
So why are we worried? Take a look at the latest graph of global methane concentrations, and note the strong upwards jag since 2007. After nearly a decade of stability, the concentration is increasing once more.

It’s too soon to say whether this is just a blip or the start of a new trend, but even a cautious piece on methane in Nature Reports: Climate Change earlier this month began by pointing to what may be new and large seeps from the sea floor north of Siberia:

In 2007, scientists scouting the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean began to notice some troubling signs. In about half of their seawater chemistry samples, the concentration of dissolved methane was two to ten times higher than in samples taken during previous years from the same locations. Then, last summer, they observed large rings of gas — sometimes as wide as 30 centimetres in diameter — trapped in ice, as well as methane plumes bubbling to the surface over hundreds of square kilometres of the shallow waters along the Siberian Shelf.

As with the increase in atmospheric methane, it’s too early to say definitively that these plumes are the result of warming, but they are new to science. We just don’t know if they were around before we started looking. And there’s another increase that gives pause for thought: estimates of the amount of carbon in permafrost have recently doubled. Nature Reports describes the reserves:

These deposits rival fossil fuels in terms of their size. It’s like having a whole additional supply of coal, oil and natural gas out there that we can’t control,” says James White, a geochemist at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

It also appears that permafrost may not melt slowly from the top down. At the recent Copenhagen Climate Congress, the Guardian reported:

Philippe Ciais, a researcher with the Laboratory for Climate Sciences and the Environment in Gif-sur-Yvette, France, told the Copenhagen Climate Congress that billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide and methane could be freed by just a 2C average rise. He said such a release of greenhouse gases could trigger an “explosive” reaction in the soil, with bacteria able to start decomposing giant stocks of frozen carbon. “You can call it a bacterial heat production effect if you are a pretentious scientist, or you can call it composting,” he said.

But there are other dangers from rapid warming in the Arctic, as Pearce discusses in New Scientist. A increased freshening of the Arctic ocean could slow down the oceanic thermohaline circulation, and cause changes in rainfall patterns around the world.

The biggest consequence, says Buwen Dong of the Walker Institute for Climate System Research at the University of Reading, UK, is likely to be a disruption, and quite probably a complete collapse, of the Asian monsoon, causing severe droughts in south Asia. “It could have enormous social and economic impacts on these nations,” he says.

Dong’s research highlights the interconnectedness of the climate system and its weather patterns. Marry that to evidence suggesting that planetary scale atmospheric reorganisations can happen in only a few years, and we have an emerging picture of a climate system heading towards irreversible and potentially catastrophic change. And it starts in the Arctic.
No, the news is not good.

[Mahavishnu Orchestra]

7 thoughts on “The inner mounting flame”

  1. This is my greatest fear…
    Katey Walter’s video answered one question I had about the methane process.
    That is: What happens during the winter, does it go dormant…no it does not.
    I’m a bit pressed for time at the moment, so I haven’t been able to follow all your links yet and the links might cover my following question.
    Have you heard of the “pingo like features” on the Beaufort Sea floor?
    First up on a Google search and I got an article by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute which gives a good description of them.
    Also, a while back I read about odd underwater “craters” off the coast of Norway. The article about these “craters” speculated that they were ancient methane eruptions. I’m not sure if I read that in one of my books or on the net, but I’ll try to find it. With my search skills it might take a while though…

  2. Tom,
    The situation off Norway is intriguing, and one I have been researching for some time for a writing project. I can include references here if you’re able to access academic journals. If not, email me privately and I’ll forward you a couple of key papers.


  3. Thanks for the offer Sonny but academic journals, at least the ones I’m interested in, all seem to be hiding behind paywalls and at the moment my budget is painfully thin…..
    But I’m happy with what I can get and there’s plenty of free stuff such as:
    The Storegga Landslides @ Surburban Emergency Management Project.
    I think this is one of the articles I stumbled across a year or so ago…there’s another one but it’s eluding me…
    I keep wondering if these Beaufort Sea pingo-like features are a prelude to an methane eruption from the sea floor. And do these things exist in Siberian waters?

  4. Ah! I’ve finally managed to log in. Jolly good.

    Well, like I say, methane growth is currently ~0.6%/yr, taking only the last 2 years. Take the last 10 years and it is 1/4 of that. So observations don’t support the idea of rapidly rising methane levels. Who knows – they might in the future. But they haven’t yet.

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